After successfully completing my first marathon, the Athens marathon, I set my sights on the next most important thing in my life…my approaching 40thbirthday and the celebrations that would ensue. I travelled around the world from Hong Kong to North America, onwards to Europe and Argentina, celebrating with best friends and adventuring in new parts of the world. Of course, I continued running, as this was now part of my lifestyle, but with no particular goal in mind. Once I had safely transitioned into my 40thyear it was time to take some action and decide where I wanted to lay my hat. Greece was still pulling me but this time back to my hometown, my heart, my Crete. A small business opportunity helped with the transition into my new life and so it began in a small fishing harbor called Chania on the west side of the island. From the moment I stepped off the plane, a wave of peace and joy swept over me, together with the hot summer air of course. I was home! After a few weeks of settling in, I started asking around about where to run, and I was soon introduced to the local running community. Shy at first, I was very nervous about running with actual runners…who was I after all? Such a newbie, only trained by myself up until now, how would I compare?
Joining a running club
I needn’t have worried, they were so welcoming and had wide ranging pace’s and abilities, I fitted right in. They talked about an upcoming race, a 10K in Frangokastello. I thought it sounded exciting. I didn’t train for it, I didn’t know how, but it was a road trip to the South side of the island and I thought it would be a great experience. A bit nervous on the starting line I set off at a good clip, thinking to hold the pace I had seen in my training. Well I burnt out quickly and was suffering under the high heat. Leading initially, I soon fell behind. I was thinking, ok, this is going to be a big fail, but I can only do what I can and kept pushing on!!! But then I came across an aid station with sponges and ice water and I quickly soaked my neck and legs and felt like a new person. My pace picked up and before long I was catching and passing people. I could see the finish line ahead of me and a girl in front. I decided I was going to try and catch her. I felt a bit sorry for her as she had headphones in and didn’t know I was coming. She was getting closer to the finish line and I was getting closer to her, I pushed and managed to pip her to the post and score 2nd female…my first ever podium!!! You wouldn’t have wiped the smile off my face even if you had kicked me. I subsequently did other races and I found myself on the podium each time. I realize of course, this is Crete we are talking about, a small Greek island. I wasn’t about to let it go to my head, but still it was a lot of fun to be competing and winning.
From road running to trail running
I had completed 3 marathons now, and numerous races at other distances, I was looking for the next challenge. I was surrounded by these beautiful mountains, wouldn’t it be amazing if I could run in them? How on earth do you do that without killing yourself? I hike in them and that feels treacherous, I couldn’t possibly imagine running. I wanted to upskill myself and started looking for running camps. I couldn’t find anything in Europe, let alone in Greece. I read an article in Runners World, which highlighted a couple of camps in America. One seemed to be a standard training camp where they talk about nutrition and different type of workouts. I thought to myself, that I wouldn’t necessarily learn anything new to things I could learn online.
Rob Krar’s running camp
Another one which stood out was Rob Krar’s Ultra & Trail running camp. It was for all abilities, I would learn how to run on trails and maybe an ‘ultra’ was the next challenge I was looking for? An ultra is any distance longer than a marathon (26.2miles). Maybe I wasn’t experienced enough though to attend? It was also quite expensive. I wasn’t working and wondered should I be “wasting” money on a hobby? I promptly sent Rob (by the way, I had no idea who he was at the time) an email, detailing my concerns;
- Is your camp actually a training camp or more like a running holiday? What am I likely to learn and how will I be a better runner at the end of it?
- How is your camp different from other camps out there? Especially given the price differential is quite high
- Will there be any coaching or is it more informal sharing advice based on your experience?
- How personalised is it….is there the opportunity to receive specific feedback about my running style, technique, training plans etc?
Making life changing decisions
His reply was very thorough and considered, and I knew then that I had to attend.
- It is hard to classify our camp as either a training camp or running holiday, I would tend to say it’s somewhere in between. The runs are generally between 8-10 miles with optional add on bonus miles and all above 7,000 feet elevation
- We try to find a balance between full days and not overwhelming campers. Some of the activities include educational seminars covering training/racing/life balance, a nutrition talk, strength session, Active Isolated Stretching session, night run.
- The camp isn’t designed for specific coaching. Of course there will be plenty of opportunities to ask questions, ask for advise, and learn from myself, the guides and fellow campers.
Going to America
I booked the camp and flew out to visit my friend Michele who lives in Denver first, then we drove down to Flagstaff together to have a bit of a road trip, stopping off at the Arches in Moab on the way. She dropped me off Sunday lunchtime, I was due to start camp at 3pm. I was very nervous and excited, like starting the first day of school! I needn’t have worried, these campers soon became like family and it would be a sad day saying goodbye by the end of it.
My first trail running experience
The camp was nothing like I had experienced before. I remember the very first trail run was out the back of Buffalo Park and up Oldham to the majestic view on Elden Lookout. All of those rocks! I just remember repeating a mantra to myself of don’t trip up. I must have been going so slowly, but the guides (all experienced local runners volunteering) were so kind and patient and I never felt like I was a burden. We ran down Elden Lookout Road and I was able to open up and feel like I was actually running, it felt exhilarating. Yay…I had survived my first trail run!!!
As the week continued, we did even more spectacular runs – Aspen Corner, Grand Canyon, Lockett Meadow and Sedona and I could feel my confidence growing. I was in my element surrounded by such natural beauty, running free, so happy. My fellow campers, the local guides, Rob & Christina all made me feel so welcome. Finally, I had found my people. This is what it feels like to be part of something, a community. Every night I was going to bed exhausted and happy, excited for the next days run and camaraderie. The food was out of this world, all fresh, wholesome ingredients that we all gratefully gobbled down after each run. I was like a sponge trying to absorb all of the experience the guides and Rob had to offer, they probably got sick of all the questions I was asking, but not one of them let on…they all seemed eager to want to help and impart their knowledge. I was revved up, ready for action. I wanted to see what I was capable of. I was inspired by all of the talent in the group and their life stories, the dirt and the grit, and what had gotten them to this place. I wanted and needed more…. I had a lot to think about on my journey back to Greece.
Falling in love with Flagstaff
We all commented on how sad we were to say goodbye, we had become a family and friendships I made then I am sure will remain lifelong. I even wrote a poem about it, I was so touched:
and his Ultra Camp….
Has by far,
made its mark, an indelible stamp;
On my life and my heart
And of course my running in no small part;
The sense of community,
Everyone with varying ability….
Friendly faces, joyous races, magical places, heavenly graces!
Warm, inviting and safe,
No longer the need to roam;
Inner peace…. trust,
Right place, right time
Magical people…. a must
For the stars to align
Like a leaf on the wind
Live happy, run free!
Returning to Crete
I returned to Crete excited to run in the mountains. Unfortunately, I didn’t quite think this through. In these times of economic crisis, trail building and maintenance were not high on their agendas and while undoubtedly you can explore the beautiful mountains and follow the trails used by the sheep and goats, they can be quite dangerous and you need to know where you are going and be ready to cajole the local farmers whose land you are likely running on! Not one to be easily put off, I persevered and reached out to local mountain clubs and runners to make some connections in order to find what trails I could. In the meantime, I decided that this (running) was something I wanted to invest my time in whilst I was not working. I was so passionate about it I wanted to see what I was capable of. To do so, I recognized that I would benefit from having a coach.
Reaching for the stars
Shortly after arriving back, I reached out to Rob asking for some coaching recommendations. He replied with a couple of suggestions, but also said that he would like to throw his hat into the ring to coach me. WHAT?? ME?? I couldn’t believe my luck!! The Rob Krar wanted to coach little old me? I was blown away. He also said he classified me as one of his few athletes, which I couldn’t stop laughing about. An athlete??? Seriously, I was giddy with excitement, this was crazy!! What was happening to my life???? Not so long ago I was an unhealthy corporate executive living in Hong Kong and now I was a runner, an athlete (?) who Rob Krar wanted to coach????? As you can imagine there was a lot of whooping, hollering and dancing around the room. (For those of you who don’t know, Rob is 2 times winner of Western States 100M and Leadville 100M, named Ultra Runner of the Year twice – sponsored elite athlete for North Face, GU and Nathan… etc etc you get the idea. He knows his stuff!!)
Taking a leap into the unknown
Of course, I casually replied back that sounded great. I pondered further and asked him whether he thought it would be worthwhile me coming back out to Flagstaff for 3 months to train there? He replied, yes as then he would know exactly what trails he would be sending me on for training and would be close by to offer advice. So, in true Helen Galerakis style, I packed up my stuff and moved it to a friend’s basement and flew back out to Flagstaff only a month after the camp. I didn’t think twice.
Rob & Christina went out of their way to help me settle into life in Flagstaff and were a tremendous support. Rob put me in touch with one of his friends Paul (a national triathlon champion), about renting a room for my first week there, who as luck would have it his wife was Greek. We hit it off instantly and they were an amazing help, settling me in. Then Rob found me a room to rent with an Olympic champion. Hello? Where I am?? What has happened to my life??? I felt like I was in another world.
If you’ve never been, Flagstaff is one of the most beautiful places, with so many trails, peaks, at elevation, lots of sunshine and most importantly for me, with Sedona down the road and Phoenix not much further I would never have to be cold again.
I talked to Rob about my goals and of course I went straight to the top and said I wanted to do a 100 miler. He advised that we shouldn’t rush it. He said he knew I was capable of finishing one now if I wanted to but he wanted to make sure I was strong and remain injury free. He wanted to build up my experience and my strength over time. He suggested, we wait until the following year and in the meantime there would be enough challenges with the ultra distances in between. I had a lot to learn. So, I set my sights on my first 50miler in November.
Strength & Conditioning
Rob also got me started with strength and conditioning. He would set up “stations” outside of his home in the driveway and we would work out together. It was my first ever experience of this kind of workout and I felt privileged that he took the trouble to set everything up and workout with me. I have no clue what the neighbours were thinking!!!
My first Ultra
My first Trail Ultra would come sooner than I expected, when at the last minute I was gifted entrance to the Trans Rockies 3-day stage race in Colorado. Of course I jumped at the chance even though it was towards the end of August and I would have only done a handful of trail runs and never run that many miles and in consecutive days…why not?
Trans Rockies Stage Race
Rob helped me find a ride with a group of very experienced local runners and again I absorbed all of the intel they had to offer. I was so eager to learn but I have realized that personal experience is the only true way and unfortunately that is something that takes time no matter how much you are chomping at the bit to get started.
This race was like an extension of Rob’s camp, full of people who had a passion for the outdoors, all levels of experience with great personalities. I was so nervous on day one, but just took it easy until in one section I found myself on single track with runners behind me calling out that it was a train and I was a driver. I may well have pushed myself more than I would have liked in that scenario, but it did me no harm. I finished with a big smile on my face and we all sat down for food and the awards ceremony. I was chatting with my friends when I suddenly heard my name being called out…I had come 2ndfemale for the day. What? You have got to be kidding me. I was sure I had not run particularly well…I was giddy with excitement. I couldn’t stop laughing, really. It was ridiculous! Well, now the game was on. My competitive streak got the better of me. I didn’t think originally I stood any kind of a chance to be on the podium. This wasn’t the little island of Crete after all, this was the US of A!
Living the dream
The next day, I came second again and with my cumulative time for the 2 days I was suddenly first female overall. Now things were getting serious, I needed to keep hold of this lead. With sheer determination, I did just that and can you believe it I was 1stfemale overall for the 3-day stage race. What was happening? I felt like I was on top of the world, living the dream. I was doing something I was passionate about, which enabled me to enjoy the outdoors, the sunshine, appreciate my beautiful surroundings and on top of that I was surrounded by so many big hearted, talented and inspirational people and a community who had gone out of their way to welcome me and support me.
The North Face Ultra 50km
Next up was my first straight Ultra, a 50K. It doesn’t seem like much, only 8K more than a marathon but when you factor in my lack of mountain and trail running experience, this was going to be a challenge for sure. With every new race distance that I tackle I try not to put too much pressure on myself and treat it as a learning run, do my best but the main aim being to get to the finish line with a smile on my face and injury free. This race was a North Face event in Park City, Utah in September.
I remember leaving Flagstaff in the peak of summer and arriving in Utah just when a freak weather system came in, delivering snow and storms. I hadn’t even contemplated it would be cold, let alone rainy and snowy. Luckily I grabbed my running tights at the last minute. They had to change the course at the last minute because of the weather conditions. I was very nervous at the start line wondering how I would perform and what I was capable of. I was excited to see what my training would translate into. I kept my effort pace easy, not wanting to blow up at the last minute and also taking into account this was a training race for my ultimate goal of the 50miler in November. I remember smiling to myself as I was able to run all of the climbs. Up until this point I was struggling with climbing and altitude. This was a breakthrough moment for me, the training was paying off. I could see the tangible results. I came in 1stfemale masters. I couldn’t have been more thrilled. Next stop California for the North Face 50miler.
The North Face Ultra 50 mile
Training continued positively and I caught the flight to San Fran. A new distance and further than I have ever gone before. Would my stomach behave itself? Would my legs hold out? Will I get my pacing right? All unknown questions, I was about to find out the answer to. I stood on the starting line excited. I was doing really well, keeping an easy effort pace, I was a machine on the climbs and although I am a nervous technical downhill runner, the descents in the first part of the course are all runnable and non technical, so I flew down these with a big grin on face. Then came some technical downhill switchbacks and I got frustrated. They were tight switchbacks and littered with roots and were muddy. I felt I was going more slowly downhill than I was uphill. Then the climbs started feeling more strenuous. The only thing that saved me was the magnificent views. I was starting to wonder if the end was ever going to come and then I befriended another runner as we approached the golden gate bridge and we both dug deep and upped our pace, dodging and weaving the tourists on the bridge, excited that the end was nearly in sight. We ran hard all the way to the finish line and I burst into tears.
How the body feels after 10 hours of running
First off, oh my gosh, my hip flexors! I think once I had stopped my body thought ok, we can rest now, and everything seized up. It hurt to walk with each step. I was overwhelmed by what I had achieved and how far I had come in a short space of time. I was on my feet for 10 hours (the longest time to date), no stomach issues (I fuelled myself with GU products throughout keeping up with 250kcals an hour) and I had learnt a lot and saw definite room for improvement which was an exciting prospect, so I could train harder for the next one. I came in 4thmasters which I was pretty pleased about considering the stacked field for this particular race. I was disappointed at first on the technical downhills as I didn’t feel prepared but there is only so much you can train for in any given block.
I knew after this race, that I needed to concentrate more on my strength and conditioning as I didn’t want a repeat of that hip flexor pain. So I started going to Paragon for my workouts which are intense but so much fun! I now go to Ryan (one of the owners) for all of my niggles to ensure I prehab so I don’t have to rehab. He is a magical unicorn when it comes to these things with vast experience of musculoskeletal treatment to maximise athletic potential. Then there is Laurel and after seeing her power up the Grand Canyon trails I knew I wanted to get strong like her..she is the super fun conditioning trainer. Brian, who always makes the strength exercises look easy is as tough as they come.
Next goal…100k. I had set my sights on Cuyamaca the following October and put together a full race calendar to get as much experience as possible on varying distances and terrains. First up was the Black Canyons 60K in February. I had to go back to Europe for a month before the race, so my training was up-ended and I didn’t feel confident going into the race, but as it was a ‘B’ race for me I didn’t feel stressed about it and was going to treat it is a training run, enjoying being back in the desert with the sun on my back. I had so much fun with the sweet rolling single track, I was passing everyone which was new to me and then I started catching up to the 100k participants and passing them. I was on cloud 9, but kept it steady. I finished strong and ended up taking 1stmasters, but this time I was 4thoverall Female. I had mentioned to Rob that I’d like to feature in the top 5 females of races…I’d like to train to be good enough for that. I was over the moon!
I had qualified for the Boston marathon when I last competed in a road race back home in Crete and everyone was adamant, even though I had no desire to run on the roads again that this was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. As my overall goal was the 100K trail ultra, I was reticent to disrupt my training for a road marathon, but Rob managed to sneak in some road and marathon specific workouts and off I went. I didn’t have high expectations as I felt my running had slowed considerably since running on trails, but wanted to enjoy the experience. With the worst conditions on record, I’m not sure ‘enjoy’ is the word I would use. Nevertheless, I was smiling through gritted teeth while trying not to get blown or washed away and even finished within only a couple of minutes of my PR and #greecelightning was born (courtesy of Pamela MacMahon)
I then headed over to California for the Quicksilver 50K as a tune up race for a 50mile I had planned in July. It was a super hot day but man those trails are sweet. I ran my own race, was feeling good, hammered it at the end and crossed the finish line. I was suddenly greeted by the race director who informed me I had placed 2ndoverall female. Not just in my age group, but overall!!! What????? 2ndout of 66 females and 17thoverall. I was skipping with joy. Really, I had to pinch myself…I was riding high – grin beaming from ear to ear.
Leadville Silver Rush 50miles
On the starting line for my next 50miler, the silver rush in Leadville, I wasn’t feeling my best. I don’t know why but I never feel great in my goal races but always seem to crush my ‘B’ races. I had trained hard and knew I should have faith in the process. My friend Michelle, who lives close by had come to crew for me. It was the first time I would have support at a race, I was feeling very grateful. I towed the line and started off with my usual easy effort pace. The first 20 miles I felt tired. I don’t know if it was the altitude or something else. But my fingers were bloated like sausages, I felt nauseous and was forcing myself to drink roctane and eat the gels to keep up with my calorie intake but I was not appreciating the taste of either. My legs actually felt strong but breathing was harder. I was doing ok though, pushing through.
My first DNF
Then suddenly, my leg started hurting, by my knee. And not a dull ache type of pain that you just grin and bear, the shooting kind of pain that you can’t put any weight on. What was going on? I was immensely frustrated that the injury has come out of nowhere and on race days of all days. Especially as I thought I was doing all the right things with focusing on strength training, taking care of my recovery etc I guess that’s how it goes sometimes. I hobbled to the next aid station and the medic advised that I would do more damage if I continued and I thought I have nothing to prove by hobbling for a further 25 miles. So I pulled out. My first and hopefully only DNF.
To say I was gutted is a complete understatement. All that training gone to waste. I felt like I had let myself down and those around me who supported me. I felt utterly deflated and depressed. To this day I don’t know what it was whether it was a perfect storm of life stressors, altitude, heat…who knows? But after careful recovery I wasn’t going to let it get me down and was determined for a redemption race. Not one to choose the easy option, I opted for the Pikes Peak 50mile ultra with over 10,000 feet gain and hailstones only 3 weeks later and got it done, 4thfemale, 1stmaster. Time to move on to the big one.
The stagecoach 55K was a great tune up race, again slap bang in the middle of training with no taper. I placed 3rdfemale and felt like I was flying, like I could have continued on to complete the 100 mile. Felt good to be back and put Leadville behind me.
The Day was here, my first 100k. I drove up the night before and car camped at the starting line. The weather was perfect. No crew for this one but the course consisted of different loops that meant you kept returning to the start point so you could access your drop bag. The first and hardest loop I actually felt great, but from mile 20 my hip flexors started to hurt and that dull pain remained with me throughout the race. I continued pushing to the end. My mantra for the race was “every mile is a gift”. At the time my visa status was unstable. I managed 3rdplace overall female out of 44, 1stmasters and 26thplace overall. I was testing my limits and succeeding…
Finally, I am ready for my 100 miles (what does ready look like for 100 miles?)
I got a bit too hung up there for a while on wh
ere I placed in races as a measure to define my success. With no previous athletic experience to gauge my performance, I was using it as a method to determine my ability. Foolish really. Why would you let whether or not you had a good race be dependent on who else turns up to tow the starting line? There is always going to be someone better than me, its just luck whether or not they are racing against me on the day. Don’t get me wrong it still feels marvellous if I make it to the podium and I have no doubt that my competitive nature will always shine through but I try to now judge my performance on whether or not I have given it my all and feeling like I couldn’t have done any more. Competing against myself, pushing my limits. Then I know I have won, regardless of my final position.
Appreciating the journey
These last 2 years have been an absolute blast logging thousands of miles and hours on the trails. I still have to pinch myself when I see where I have come from and how much happier I am now. To be honest, I feel bloody lucky to be doing what I love, each and every day and I certainly don’t take for granted how this little body helps me achieve that and the wonderful people in my life who have and continue to support me on this journey.
Less than 2 weeks until race day. The Bighorn 100, my first 100 mile race with over 20,000 feet of vertical gain. My emotions have been all over the place these past weeks. Completely shattered, anxious, depressed, very unlike me. I could attribute it to any number of reasons, but I have learnt that sometimes it is simply best to ride out my emotions and let myself feel. After investing some time into planning and researching the course, slowly I have pulled myself out of this state of mind and gotten myself comfortable with the unknown of what a 100 mile race may bring. I’m even feeling excited, ready to put the last 2 years of training into practice. I am well aware that I still have so much to learn and by doing this race it will be another piece of metal to add to my running suit of armour and no matter the outcome I will come away stronger for it.
Appreciating my experiences
You can’t buy experience, it takes time and commitment and I value ever so much every opportunity I get to rack up another notch. As I started running so late in life I feel I am constantly playing catch up. I am always inspired by all of the athletes that surround me and when I see those athletes who have been running their whole life I feel a stab of jealousy that they have enjoyed so many more years of running than me. However, if I hadn’t lived my life how I did up until now maybe I would have never found running at all. It doesn’t bear thinking about. I am grateful to have found running, no matter how late in life, and I intend to enjoy its benefits for many years to come.
I am blown away by the generosity, kindness and support I have received from my friends and the running community in the run up to race day. I have the best crew who are travelling all the way from Flagstaff to Wyoming, taking time out of their busy schedules to help #greecelightning have a great race. In my corner I have Pamela “moustachio” MacMahon, Ted “fast twitch” MacMahon, Janel “Speedy Gonzales” Lanphere, Emily “I brought the raccoon” Coleman and Finn “I am not a raccoon” Coleman. I plan to draw strength from everybody’s well wishes and positivity to help me drive to that finish line. I am one lucky girl!
Race day ready
And now, here we are, race week. I am surrounded by all my gear and my GU, finally packed and ready to go. I have spent the last 2 weeks planning and organizing to the nth degree. I have pulled together a detailed crew book with instructions for each aid station, what I might need given any scenario, driving instructions, the race manual and maps of the course. I have probably driven both Rob and my crew crazy with my attention to detail. Its my way of managing the stress, feeling prepared as much as possible for something I’m not sure how to prepare for. Afterall, I have never run this distance or for this long or through the night. Its very difficult to preempt something when you don’t know what to expect.
I sit here, ready to go to sleep and my over-arching feeling is EXCITEMENT! I can’t believe the day has finally arrived. Just 2 years since my first trail run and I am about to run 100 miles. Sure, I am a little bit apprehensive. But I am telling myself it is just a long run (ok, a really long run) in beautiful mountains, where I don’t have to carry all my food and water and I get to see my friends on the course. This is a chance for me to reflect on and be grateful for the wondrous journey that has got me to this point and to see what I am capable of when I push my boundaries. Now I have got the obsessive planning out of the way, I can relax and run free on Friday. I have worked hard and have to have faith that my training will pay off. Its not going to be easy, and of course the weather forecast is for gnarly conditions, what did I expect given my track record… but I’m determined to enjoy the ride! #livehappyrunfree